Until this year there has never been a curator based in the Middle East appointed for the Sharjah Biennial. There have been some with Middle Eastern origins but primarily based overseas, such as Rasha Salti and Tareh Abou El Fetouh who have in recent years been called on to develop certain key areas such as film and performance; Hoor Al Qasimi and Jack Persekian have both played an active role in moulding the biennial into the globally recognised event that it is today from working within the region, and yet it stands: Christine Tohmé is the first curator from the Middle East given sole charge of the Sharjah Biennial. Realistically if you had to pick someone to do it first you couldn’t really choose anyone else. Tohmé founded Ashkal Alwan, the Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts, in Beirut in 1993 (the same year as the first Sharjah Biennial) and as instability in the region has intensified has been a bastion of support for contemporary artistic practice. Always a presence at the Biennial and the March Meetings, Tohmé is no stranger to Sharjah, perhaps why she has proposed its most ambitious programme to date.
Tohmé has disregarded common definitions of a biennial. Filling 24 months with activities in Sharjah, Dakar, Istanbul, Ramallah and concluding in Beirut in October, she seeks to find a new answer to how such an exhibition can mobilise communities, reassess the art world and make a difference to an entire region. With keywords such as water, crops, earth and the culinary she wishes to address all essentials in life. There are nearly 70 artists selected for Act I, the Sharjah Chapter opening 10 March, including over 25 new commissions. Research and writing are important components as well, with a ‘chip-ship’ databank serving as a drop-box for sharing research materials between the interlocutors, a dedicated website tamawuj.org and fresh publication commissions.
Jennifer Allora & Guillermo Calzadilla. The Great Silence. 2014. Three-channel HD video installation, 16:22 minutes.
It is a dynamic and relevant list of artists, too. Whilst giving a platform to some UAE artists who are really on the rise such as Hind Mezaina, Vikram Divecha, who was recently announced as one of the artists representing the UAE along with Abdullah Al Saadi for the central exhibition in this year’s Venice Biennale; Tohmé has also chosen some faces familiar to the UAE arts crowd. These include Basim Magdy, Joe Namy and Khalil Rabah and several represented by local galleries: Abbas Akhavan, Abdelkader Benchamma, Stéphanie Saadé and Shadi Habib Allah, whose new commission will expand on a project 30kg Shine presented at Rodeo London in 2015, incorporating video and sculpture. Others have become familiar through projects they have already completed in the Emirates, such as Maria Thereza Alves, Raqs Media Collective and Marwan Rechmaoui. There are some young, serious talents on the list, such as Lawrence Abu Hamdan, already in the Barjeel Art Collection and winner of the 2016 Nam June Paik Award for artists in digital media; and several coming to the region for the first time from Asia and South America.
The March Meeting’s discussions dwell on ‘Desiring Institutions’ while primarily serving as a platform for an exciting range of film and performance. Step by Step by Ossama Mohammed was filmed in 1979 in rural Syria, beginning with heart-breaking to-camera interviews of children saying what they want to be when they grow up—doctor, teacher, engineer. Of Oil and Ice is a lecture performance by Design Earth (Rania Ghosn and El Hadi Jazairy) following their project After Oil presented in the Kuwait Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2016. Lunch will be served by Cooking Sections (Daniel Fernández Pascual & Alon Schwabe), a duo of spatial practitioners based out of London, born to explore the systems that organise the world through food. Following on from the successful Shimabuku’s Boat Trip at Sharjah Biennial 11 visitors will again have a chance to take to the water, to visit Al Hamriyah Studios.
Dineo Seshee Bopape. The Name of which escapes me now (in its whole as well as in numerous specific places). 2016. Mixed media, Dimensions variable. Installation view. Image courtesy of Paula Sweet.
“Collaborations and friendships are at the heart of what I do.” Tohmé explains. “These localities were not selected for some geopolitical qualities, but rather because of certain people working in these cities, with whom I share a common history and a common vision.” By establishing a close and lasting network between her chosen interlocutors, she gives each autonomy to present projects in their chosen city while brainstorming and building frameworks together. In January, Kader Attia orchestrated a two-day workshop at Université Cheikh Anta Diop, Dakar on the theme of water and belief.
Next up is Zeynep Oz in Istanbul this May. In late March and April two weekends of talks and film screenings are planned, with speakers from disciplines of psychology, western literature, history and architecture and screenings curated by Fol Cinema Society and Canan Balan in collaboration with the Istanbul Silent Cinema Days, which will “act as fertilizers” Oz jokes, given her theme of crops and seed dormancy: “To give information for people to think and ruminate about ahead of seeing the commissions.” Oz’s contribution is an extension of her home-grown initiative ‘Produce’ which commissions performances, short films and installation artworks bi-annually. Assigning four researchers Suna Kafadar, Onur Karaoğlu, Deniz Tortum, Fatma Belkıs who will also all produce artworks (Belkıs in Sharjah too) Oz has created her own micro-network inspired by Tohmé’s methodologies. Talking of how the creative industry in Istanbul has been affected by recent political volatility, “it’s a little bit quieter,” she admits. “But we must keep doing. Keep having people looking, commenting: that is what keeps the wheels turning.”
Tohmé has named the Biennial Tamawuj – an Arabic word for which she gives three definitions ‘the rising and falling of waves’, ‘a flowing, swelling, surging or fluctuation’ and ‘a wavy, undulating appearance, outline or form.’ What they all have in common is an undefined start and end point, suggesting that life needs to be in never-ending continuum and that we all must keep soldiering on.
Sharjah Biennial 13: Tamawuj unfolds in five parts until 19 October 2017 sharjahart.org